World-class Australia truly polite, no faking

The Olympics are all about sport.

They're also about a lot more.

For all the enormous work the Australian government and the people did to get the Olympics here and build the facilities, the true glory in this nation is its people.

For all the splendor of this world-class city, set around its extraordinary harbor watched over by tall buildings on one side and the Sydney Opera House on the other, the strength of this nation is its people.

These people wear you out with their friendliness. They cannot do enough for you. There are 47,000 volunteers working on the Olympics and most of them speak to you every single day. You can lose your voice just saying hello.

Ask them for the time, and they want to give you their watches. Ask for help, and they bury you in assistance. A confused journalist asks an Australian to point the way to where the badminton is being contested in Olympic Park. "Why don't I just take you there?" she says. "That will make it easiest for you."

Basically, if Australians are not asked to do something that could result in a felony conviction, they are game.

It certainly can be assumed the Australians are putting on their best party manners for their visitors from around the world. But if they were faking it, it would be obvious. They're not. An Australian hostess at the Main Press Centre beams when a visitor tells her how excellent everything is. She then laughs, "It's so much fun to be an Australian."

Indeed, they act like it's fun to be an Australian. As a people, they are a good time waiting to happen. If you can be around Australians and not have fun, the fault is with you, not them.

And here's the best part: They love Americans.

Even better, they want you to know of their affection.

Coming into the Main Press Centre requires passing through airport-style security - but manned by Australians. It's more like being welcomed into someone's home, although admittedly one is not normally checked for weapons before entering a friend's home.

"Thanks for everything you do for us," a journalist tells a security person.

"You Americans were here for us in '42," he responds. "Now it's our pleasure to be here for you."

His reference to an event almost six decades past was the vicious Battle of the Coral Sea. It was a scary time, of course, and especially frightening to Australia. Japan already controlled a huge area in this part of the world, and Australia was its next acquisition.

Australians knew their homeland was in peril. And then American bombers and torpedo planes showed up - along with Australian vessels - and confronted the Japanese at nearby Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. It became a desperate and pitched battle.

The Japanese ended up losing two aircraft carriers, two destroyers, 100 planes, and 3,500 men. The US gave up an aircraft carrier (the USS Lexington), a destroyer, a tanker, 65 airplanes, and 540 men.

But the US prevailed, and there ended the threat to Australia.

It also was a time when US soldiers and marines occupied the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Australians minded not a whit. Just 13 years later, the site was the main arena for the 1956 Olympics, where 107,700 attended the opening ceremony.

Another time recently, a group of journalists ventured to downtown Sydney to catch a ferryboat and have dinner at a nearby restaurant. Needing directions to the ferry, a couple on their way to the Opera House was asked for assistance. Of course, they went far out of their way. They did everything but hand over their Visa card.

"Thanks very much," one of the group responded. "No, no, thank you," the man said. "I just never feel like I can say 'thank you' enough to Americans." He was involved in World War II. He knew all about Tulagi. He remembered it like yesterday.

The point is gratitude is an exquisite thing.

Often, at press conferences here following their triumphs, athletes act as if the accomplishments are all theirs. It's odd that so often athletes get the feeling their successes are due entirely to their own efforts, while their failures involve many. They need lessons from the Australians.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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